In the (end) zone

Ohio redshirt freshman wide receiver Shane Hooks (with ball) had his first career touchdown catch at Marshall on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.

If you haven’t noticed, the Bobcats have quietly become a dominant home football program.

It’s true. Ohio has won 10 straight home games inside Peden Stadium; it’s the longest such run on home wins in the program’s more than 100-year history.

The Bobcats (1-2) will try to cash in on some of that recently built magic on Saturday when they look to snap a two-game slide. Louisiana (2-1), a division favorite out of the Sun Belt Conference, arrives for a 2 p.m. kickoff.

Ohio head coach Frank Solich is no stranger to streaky football. In his multiple decades of work on the Nebraska coaching staff, he saw several notable one. But most applicable in this case was the Cornhuskers incredible 47-game home winning streak from 1991-98.

Solich has an idea of what it takes to win games, home or away. He generally shrugged off questions about the home win streak this week. The Bobcats, under his watch, have always tried to win games, wherever they’re played, after all.

“We don’t prepare any differently for a home game than we do for an away game, or than what we did a few years ago,” Solich explained. “It’s just a number of things really.

“You got to be fortunate as you go through your schedule. If you stay healthy, you give yourself your best chance,” he continued. “Other than that, it’s always easier to play in front of a home crowd than what it is (on the road). I don’t know. Some of it comes down to opponents too.”

Ohio’s current 10-game winning streak goes back to just 2017. But the Bobcats have also won 15 of their last 16 games, and usually have done so in dominating fashion.

Let’s start with the longer run (15 of 16). On Oct. 15, 2016, the ‘Cats lost 27-20 at Peden to Eastern Michigan. In the 16 games since, OU has posted an average margin of victory of 25.4 points per game and is averaging 45.7 points per game.

It’s heady stuff. And sure there’s two games against FCS teams in there, but there’s also a win over a Power 5 conference team (Kansas) and grade A routs against a MAC champion (Toledo in 2017) and a 10-win team (Buffalo in 2018).

Ohio’s current 10-game home winning streak is no less impressive. OU’s last home loss came on Oct. 7, 2017 when CMU converted a four-turnover day and a blocked field goal for a touchdown into a 26-23 stunner.

But since, it’s been all Bobcats. The margin of victory over the 10 games since that loss is 26.2 points per game. Ohio is averaging a staggering 47.0 points per game over the same span.

And that accounts for a 38-32 sleep-walk job in a win over Howard in the 2018 season opener.

And if Solich’s is having trouble pin-pointing a specific reason for the uptick in home success, let me offer a suggestion: Nathan Rourke.

Since the start of the 2017 season, Rourke has played been the starter or played the most snaps in 11 of the 13 home games over than span. He wasn’t the No. 1 QB for a 59-0 win over Hampton to start 2017, and was lifted after just three series in the 38-32 win over Howard to open 2018.

In the other 11 home games, Rourke has helped the offense to 497 combined points. The Bobcats’ TD king has led OU to a 45.2 point per game scoring average over that span.

Ohio will take all the offense it can get on Saturday. The Ragin’ Cajuns are the best rushing team in the country that doesn’t run the triple option, average 8.0 yards per carry and 46.6 points per game.

It’s another test in a non-conference slate full of them for Ohio. Either the Bobcats shrug off last week’s shoddy tackling at Marshall and become sure-handed against Louisiana, or the problems persist and OU will be staring at 1-3 entering the bye week.

And of course there’s the third option, where Ohio just explodes offensively like it has so many other times at home recent and wins a shootout.

In any scenario, Solich said there’s no pressure on the Bobcats. He’s not worried. He’s not happy being 1-2, but confidence and calm have been the vibes throughout Peden all week.

“No matter what transpires we’ll work through it and we’ll play great football with this team, this year,” Solich said Thursday. “We want that to be right now though.”

Ohio (1-2) vs. Louisiana (2-1)

Ohio Offense vs. Louisiana Defense

Offensive Coordinator Tim Albin admitted he had a sleepless night a week ago on Friday, when he learned he was going to without four offensive starters/key cogs (WRs Tyler Tupa and Cam Odom, C Steve Hayes, and RB Julian Ross) going into Marshall.

But the Bobcats’ young brigade rose to the challenge.

At 1-2, no one on the coaching staff is having ‘fun.’ But where the offense stands after three games leave Albin encouraged.

“We’re not up there playing tag on the fifth floor in the offices with (Solich), if you get my drift,” Albin said.

“Disappointed with the outcome, but where we are as an offense I’m positive. I feel very good about the group.”

What is there to feel good about? One glance at the stat sheets shows OU is averaging less than points than a year ago at the same time, and the run game — while still potent — has approached last year’s nuclear-level yet. Add in the injuries, and you might wonder the positive thoughts stem from.

First, Ohio isn’t turning the ball over. The Bobcats’ offense has just one — OU has three total and two have been fumbles on punt returns — and that came in garbage time from backup QB Joe Mischler.

The injuries have been unfortunate. But between RB De’Montre Tuggle’s emergence, the steadiness displayed already by TEs Ryan and Adam Luehrman, the quality depth up front from OL Nick Sink, and the raw, glittering potential of WRs Jerome Buckner and Shane Hooks, the talent level at least seems to be close to where it was a year ago.

And third, there’s Rourke. He’s getting rid of the ball quickly and utilizing check-downs. He hasn’t shied away from the ground game — he’s still averaging about 10 rushing attempts per game — and his accuracy has never been better. Rourke leads Ohio with 150 rushing yards, is hitting 62.2 percent of his throws for 580 yards and five touchdowns, and doesn’t have an interception in 74 pass attempts.

Lastly, this group is still getting better. After getting hammered by blitzes at Pitt, the RB group was much better at meeting those linebacker and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. The OL was more sound in forming a cohesive pocket.

And lastly, OU continues to know what it wants to do offensively. The Bobcats are still running it 56 percent of the time, despite playing catchup in most of the last two games, and have gotten back to utilizing more two TE sets.

Ohio remains good in finishing off drives (10 for 10 red zone chances = scores) and on third down (47 percent).

What hasn’t clicked has been the play count. OU has managed just 56 and 57 offensive snaps in the last two games. It’s been a combination of failing on same makable third downs (keeping drives alive) and defensive issues in closing out enemy drives (getting more possessions).

So, what about the Cajuns?

First, Louisiana uses a 3-4 front. The best thing going for the Cajuns’ defense is how well the offense has helped complement the effort. With a ground game keeping the unit fresh, bashing out yards and getting points, Louisiana has been able to play with a lead and use that to its advantage.

Louisiana is allowing just 19.3 points a game, but has been average (5.3) in allowing yards per play. The Cajuns have been okay at getting after the quarterback (7 sacks), but have excelled on third downs (25.0 percent).

But there is questions about the schedule. The defense had the issues you’d expect in the opener — a 38-28 loss to Mississippi State — but the offense overwhelmed Liberty (35-14 win) and Texas Southern had no business being on the same field that day last week (77-6 win).

But the 3-4 front, and the versatility and variability that allows, could cause some issues for OU. The Bobcats have typically had more difficulty with 3-4 fronts as opposed to 4-3 looks. And the Cajuns will do some different things out of it, like playing their ‘Buck” outside rusher more often on the boundary side.

“They do a good job of traveling different guys with different players. The (middle linebacker) will travel with different guys, the (weakside linebacker) will travel with different guys. That’s a little bit different than how we ID things,” Albin explained.

Ohio should be marginally healthier, however. Wide receivers Tyler Tupa and Cameron Odom are expected to go for the Bobcats. Hayes and Ross remain out, and RB O’Shaan Allison will be a game time decision.

Who to watch: Keep an eye on Tupa. He was targeted four times in the season opener, and had three catches — two went for first downs and the third was a touchdown. Odom, as well, has been targeted just three times in two games.

Tuggle will be vital as well. It appears he’s in line to make his first start at Ohio. He’s had success — four touchdowns on 20 total touches — but taking the first reps and planning for 50+ snaps will be a different matter for him.

For Louisiana, that ‘Buck’ end — Chauncey Manac — is a 6-3, 252-pound junior who has more than a third of the Cajuns sacks (2.5 of 7.0). He’ll have to be accounted for.

The Cajuns’ leading tackler has just 14 after three games, which tells you it’s a defense that hasn’t been on the field for long stretches. Ohio might have success with its own ball-control plan of attack.

Louisiana offense vs Ohio defense

There’s a lot to like about the Cajuns’ offense, and the numbers they’ve put up through three games.

The 46.6 points per game is 16th nationally. The 336.7 rushing yards per game is third in the country. The 590.3 yards per game is fourth.

No one has more rushing touchdowns (14) or rushing yards (1,010).

The Cajuns have a trio of veteran running backs they can shuttle in and out, and two preseason All-Sun Belt picks on the right side of the offensive line with guard Kevin Dotson and tackle Robert Hunt. Two of the backs average more than 11 yards per carry (Trey Ragas (11.5) and Raymond Calais (11.6).

And then there’s a potential pro outside with preseason all-conference pick Ja’Marcus Bradley (15-255, 2 TDs) at wide receiver.

AND there’s junior QB Levi Lewis, who might be small (5-10, 190), but packs a lot of athleticism into his frame. He’s rushed for a net 20 yards in three games, but is a constant threat to run and has completed 65.3 percent of this throws for 627 yards and five touchdowns.

Whew. Now imagine how Ohio defensive coordinator Ron Collins feels after his unit gave up more than 500 yards a week ago to Marshall.

“You better get better,” he said bluntly.

Schematically, the Cajuns will have a familiar look. They’ll run plays at a rapid tempo — such as Bowling Green under Dino Babers or Kent State with Sean Lewis — and second-year head coach Billy Napier has seen how tempo can affect games as an assistant at both Alabama and Clemson (how about that resume?) in the last 10 years.

Louisiana will use tempo, but won’t eschew physical running football. In most normal down and distance situations, the Cajuns will have one, or two, tight ends and/or H-backs on the field. The offensive line is huge — 314 pounds average weight — and the constant barrage of runs plus the tempo can gas a defensive front.

In terms of concepts, this too will have a familiar look. The Cajuns prefer the Pistol formation — as does Ohio — and the bread-and-butter plays are nothing new. Inside zone, read option, quick throws off RPOs’ and the Cajuns’ best play — outside zone — will see plenty of use.

"They remind me a lot of the Appy State team back in ’15,” Collins said, referring to the 2015 Camellia Bowl opponent that rushed for 305 yards on Ohio. “Great running team. Pistol formation. Run the outside zone very well.

“They do a variety of formations that try to mess with your eyes. So you got to be very good with your eye discipline in this game.”

The one thing the Cajuns have had issues with is turnovers, with six giveaways in three games. Unfortunately, Ohio is still waiting to get its second of the season.

Creating turnovers, and sacks, remains a focus for Ohio. The Bobcats have good pressure numbers — 26 QB hurries in three games — but have landed havoc plays a very low rate so far.

“We’ve got pressure, we’ve got hurries, we’ve got some hits on the quarterback. We just haven’t gotten the sacks, we haven’t finished that part off,” Collins said. “We got to finish.”

I don’t expect Ohio to have the same issues with tackling that it did a week ago. The Bobcats have repped those fundamentals hard this week.

But that doesn’t mean Louisiana won’t have success on the ground. OU will need stops — however they happen — and the stop rate has ticker lower each in each of the first three games.

The Bobcats need a defensive bounce back in a big way. There’s no magic bullet fix this week. Ohio went back to basics and repped fundamentals and techniques.

‘A’, we got to do a better job with our technique. ‘B’, we have to tackle better. And ‘C’, we got to get ourselves off the field,” Collins said.

Who to watch: Senior safety Javon Hagan has been involved in 27 tackles so far, and his nine per game is a season high. But the impact plays have been lacking. Given the Cajuns’ preference for short, quick throws — or deep shots with little in-between — this could be a week where Hagan gets more chances to be aggressive.

DT Cole Baker (10 tackles, team-high 1.5 sacks) had been effective inside. But OU needs more from the rest of the DT rotation. Stopping the inside zone, and being sound in cutback lanes against the outside zone, are important against Louisiana’s scheme.

For the Cajuns’ I think it comes down to Lewis. He’s a tough QB to blitz because of his elusiveness, and he has to be accounted for in the run game. But, OU has to find a way to make him uncomfortable and throw a wrench into the Cajuns’ well-oiled offense.

Extra points

— With his next win, Frank Solich will join Bill Hess (1958-1977) in second place on the Ohio career coaching wins list. Solich is three wins away from tying Herb Deromedi for the MAC record.

— Rourke’s 45 career passing touchdowns rank second in program history, and his 38 career rushing touchdowns rank third. The senior QB also ranks third in OU history with 5,217 passing yards; he passed Anthony Thornton (5,199, 1987-1990) last week.

— The game will be the first outside the state of Louisiana this season for the Cajuns. UL played Mississippi State in New Orleans in a neutral site opener, then played Liberty and Texas Southern at home over the last two weeks. OU is schedule to play at Louisiana in 2021.

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Email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @JasonAmessenger

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